It could have gone any of three ways. When we pitted the new and nimbler GMC Acadia against a driver’s car—the Mazda CX-9—against the stalwart Toyota Highlander, we found ourselves in a dogfight. All had their defenders and their critics. And in usual Motor Trend judges’ manner, the opinions were loud and passionate.
In a way, it turned into a battle for second place in the wake of heated debates over first and third because, in the end, each got at least one first place vote.
And it boiled down to our criteria on this one. The winner wasn’t just the most fun to drive; it had to be the vehicle that best serves the buyer in this segment. When you are talking about a family vehicle, how well you enjoy being a passenger is as important as the happiness of the person behind the wheel. Yes, drive performance matters, but not at the expense of safety, comfort, or convenience.
After many days of testing on a variety of surfaces and loops and a lot of smack talk among the panel, it was decision time.
Third Place: 2017 GMC Acadia AWD All Terrain
Many of us were quite taken with the new Acadia, which has dropped a size and weight class from the eight-passenger full-size family hauler it has been since its inception.
For the 2017 model year GM tore the GMC model away from its fraternal triplets. The Chevrolet Traverse and Buick Enclave remain full-size vehicles, but the new Acadia leaves the family for a platform shared with the new and smaller Cadillac XT5. That means seating for a maximum of seven passengers.
The newest trim, the All Terrain off-road version, removes the third row to make it a spacious five-passenger crossover. The vehicle also sheds 740 pounds and is 7.2 inches shorter, 3.5 inches narrower, and 3.9 inches lower, resulting in almost 40 fewer cubic feet of cargo space.
The transformation led to debate over whether the smaller Acadia embodies “professional grade,” which is the DNA cornerstone of the GMC brand.
The “clear, unique design screams GMC to me and not ‘other Chevy,’ ” Christian Seabaugh said of our $47,115 AWD SLT-1 test vehicle. Scott Evans agreed. “Finally, the crossover we’ve been asking GM to build for years,” he said. “It’s done right, not to a price.”
Some of our judges felt the reinvention missed the mark by going smaller and lacking an overall professional-grade look and a top-grade engine. It is a “product in search of a rationale,” Angus MacKenzie said, calling it a move that may help keep XT5 costs down but does little to serve GMC customers wanting a larger crossover. (GMC is keeping the old Acadia as a legacy vehicle for a while for those who want the outgoing full-size version.)
Our All Terrain model had a delicious butterscotch interior with matching dash stitching and an unusual sparkle-grain trim, but we wish GM would quit going to the same parts bin for the center stack. There were also complaints about the steering wheel buttons feeling cheap, and the seat belts are not height-adjustable and cut into the neck of a short driver.
We like the twin sunroofs and comfortable, nicely bolstered seats you can heat but not cool. The Acadia is a three-row vehicle, but the All Terrain trim is for those who know they don’t want the extra seating. Removing the third row creates a cavernous space for back-seat passengers and gear, even with the rear seats up, with a huge, deep storage area, a tie-down loop, and a utility track system to be able to place other cargo loops. There is also a 12-volt outlet, two small storage cubbies under the cargo floor at the rear, and two more where the third-row seats would’ve been.
The second row has a fold-down armrest with cupholders and folds flat with the pull of a lever in the trunk to reveal a huge, flat load floor.
And GM deserves kudos for its rear-seat reminder system that notes when something has been placed in the back seat, whether it is a child or a briefcase, and chimes to tell the driver to check before leaving the vehicle.
Although many of us preferred the Acadia to the XT5, the GMC received mixed reviews on its driving characteristics. Being smaller and lighter made the new Acadia more fun to drive on a winding handling course, and the suspension did a nice job sopping up uneven surfaces, making it a nice road cruiser, as well. There was little body roll, nice steering, and a quiet cabin.
The All Terrain has a 3.6-liter V-6 with cylinder deactivation that generates 310 horsepower and 271 lb-ft of torque. Dropping cylinders was undetectable, and we were impressed that a V-4 can power this family vehicle. Stop/start is not available with the V-6; it is only on models with the 2.5-liter I-4 engine.
The V-6 exhibits “lazy throttle response and sluggish transmission response,” MacKenzie, said, and it “surges when the novocaine wears off.” On hard acceleration, the transmission can hesitate, making for a jolted on-ramp experience.
Setting cruise control is easy, but keeping the set speed is not. It does not hold speed coming down a hill and takes a long time to return to speed after slowing down. The Acadia also does not have lane-correction technology, which is becoming increasingly common in mainstream cars.
GM said the all-wheel-drive All Terrain was designed to compete with the Jeep Grand Cherokee, a lofty goal, but it does not pretend to have the same off-road prowess. It is more of a soft off-roader to park at the soccer field or get down the dirt road to a cottage. So when we beat it up a bit on the off-road track, we should not have been surprised by a broken spoiler on the first day. Still, it performed well and provided some fun moments in deep sand. And we liked it better on uneven surfaces and over gravel than the CX-9, which has a stiffer frame.
A big sore spot is the selectable AWD knob, which requires a hefty turn and hold to switch modes. The even bigger problem is you have to look down to confirm what has been selected—there’s nothing in the driver information display to indicate the mode or decipher the symbols on the knob. The only other option is going to the off-road menu. We foresee owners getting stuck in the snow their first winter because they forgot to switch into AWD or had trouble finding it.
Second Place: 2017 Toyota Highlander
Our judges tended to love or hate this one, with Jason Cammisa and Jonny Lieberman firmly planted in opposite camps—apt given the dual nature of this vehicle.
It is a restyled vehicle on an aging platform, which results in ride and handling “dulled to the point of lethargy” MacKenzie said. But it is powered by one of the best V-6 engines in the segment. It delivers both power and fuel efficiency even if gets to the highest gear as soon as possible to do so.
You can argue this is not a driver’s car and wallows on a handling course, but there is uniform respect for the 3.5-liter V-6 that generates 295 horsepower and 263 lb-ft of torque.
“Everything about the powertrain oozes smoothness,” Cammisa said. “The V-6 is absolutely imperceptible at idle and inaudible in normal driving. And the transmission’s light-throttle shifts are perfectly imperceptible, too. The car glides off the line as if were powered by an electric motor. The steering feels like it’s assisted with ball bearings, and no matter what you ask of it on the rough off-road course, the Highlander’s suspension refuses to make a harsh noise, slam into its bump stops, or lose composure.”
High praise indeed. But not shared by Lieberman, who said the poor ride quality is exasperated by the terrible seats, and the slack steering forced him to correct it rolling down the street at low speeds.
The consensus was somewhere in between. Driving the Highlander won’t induce a toothy grin, but it is a comfortable cruiser with power to pass and a little bit of sport baked into the chassis.
The Highlander felt heavier on the winding road; it required more steering effort and exhibiting more body roll than we would have liked. And the Toyo Open Country A20 tires were squealers.
Cruise control does not hold vehicle speed going downhill, and the lane keeping and steering assist is crude, a drunken sailor system that bounces off one lane marker then the other as opposed to trying to center itself in the lane.
In the looks department, it is also a split vote.
“Finally a handsome Toyota,” Cammisa said. But within the conservatively macho interior awash in black, there is a lot of hard and cheap plastic. It looks like every engineer got to design and place a button on the busy center console under the elongated touchscreen, which feels like it is miles from the driver. “There is a real reach to get a radio station changed,” Mark Rechtin said. But we love the shelf for phones and other items that need to be tucked away, as well as the huge center cubby that swallows a large purse.
Second-row passengers have lots of headroom, legroom, and foot room, good visibility, and a nice abundance of jacks, plugs, and USB ports. Unfortunately, the flip-up center console with cupholders for rear passengers “is the shiniest cheapest-grained plastic I’ve seen this side of a bowling alley,” Frank Markus said.
Getting to the third row is via a mechanical recline-and-slide unit, which provides plenty of room but is a bit of a step up for short legs. The bench seat is low and not adult-friendly.
But the vehicle overall shows real quality, and in the end, we could see why this is second only to the Ford Explorer in popularity in this segment. It is hard not to recommend this kid-hauling, everyday-driving SUV.
First Place: 2016 Mazda CX-9 (Signature AWD)
Mazda’s reputation as a driver’s car, whatever the size or body style, comes with built-in expectations. Such was the case with the CX-9, specifically the $45,215 Signature AWD model we tested.
With its pretty looks inside and out, the CX-9 entered the race as the one to beat. And although it did prove to be the most fun to drive on a handling course or on the twisty parts of a road loop, it also meant that when we found flaws, they seemed to have exaggerated stature.
“On the winding track, the Mazda was certainly as lively as I expected it to be,” Seabaugh said of the car that has dropped about 200 pounds to make it even easier to toss around with glee. “Excellent steering feel. Great chassis. Pretty damn good for a family three-row crossover.”
And that is with a 2.5-liter turbocharged I-4, the only four-banger in the group and a six-speed automatic transmission that keeps it in the meat of the power band, especially in Sport.
We did find the AWD model huffed and puffed more than the lighter front-drive model, but the powertrain was smooth and provided enough low-end torque to mimic a diesel. In fact, it has more torque than its V-6 competitors at 310 lb-ft, but there were times when the new engine seemed to suffer from inconsistent power delivery—heat soak appeared to affect turbo boost—and the CX-9 didn’t deliver the expected fuel efficiency at 18.7/25.8/20.6 Real MPG city/highway/combined when its EPA rating is 21/27/23 mpg. But the CX-9 still outperforms the 16.9/24.4/19.6 Real MPG in city/highway/combined driving for the Acadia and 15.8/23.9/18.6 Real MPG for the Highlander.
We did appreciate the rev-matched downshifts precisely when the driver wants it. There are no paddles—the CX-9 doesn’t need them—but there were some complaints about the sporty steering being a bit too heavy for what is essentially a family vehicle. And the 18-inch wheel and tire package on the front-drive model delivered crisper handling and a nicer ride quality than the 20-inchers on the all-wheel-drive Signature. Even with an extra 53 pounds of sound deadening, it is not the quietest crossover on the market.
The stiff suspension did not perform as well on uneven surfaces, but the 4,317-pound crossover caught great air on a bump on our road loop. “Great jump performance—huge hang time but soft landing,” Cammisa said.
Cruise control had no trouble maintaining 55 mph going up and down hills. It used fourth gear and the brakes to keep the speed in check. The CX-9 has a version of lane keep assist that does not keep the vehicle centered between the two lines but rather helps ease it into turns and warns the driver to take action if they stray. If no action is taken, the system will deactivate.
And there was one serious flaw: an over-zealous automatic braking system. A couple of us were rolling up on a vehicle with plenty of room and time to stop but were greeted with a warning message, beep, and slamming of the brakes that did not seem warranted.
But it was not enough to diminish our overall respect for Mazda’s ability to create a seven-passenger family vehicle that is equal parts attractive and fun to drive.
“Everything on this Mazda feels solidly built, from the bank-vault heavy doors to the massive dash to the way the heavy seats fold flat,” Seabaugh said.
The cabin has a luxury feel with thick, buttery leather and excellent wood trim that put the other vehicles to shame. But it is noticeably short on storage options, and we advocate for more accessible power outlets and plugs. And the air-conditioning struggled in the heat.
There is an ample second-row seat even though there is the illusion of less headroom because of the way the headliner rises in the front to accommodate the sunroof that is only for the first row. And many felt it offered the most comfortable third-row. “I could probably ride for an hour or two back here,” Markus said. Be careful opening the tailgate: It’s low and does not appear to be height-adjustable
The fact that the touchscreen only works when the car is stopped renders it completely useless, in Cammisa’s opinion. But he appreciated the rotary controller with a volume control beside it on the left side of the steering wheel. “Someone is paying attention,” he said.
The final decision: The CX-9 was not the home run we expected, but it’s the clear winner nevertheless. It is still the most pleasant to drive of the midsize, mid-price three-row SUVs. It has precise steering and glides from corner to corner, the tires run out of talent before the chassis, and the transmission is nicely calibrated and offers rev-matched downshifts precisely when the driver wants it.
In short, it drives as well as it looks.
|2017 GMC Acadia All Terrain (SLT-1)||2016 Mazda CX-9 (Signature)||2017 Toyota Highlander SE AWD|
|DRIVETRAIN LAYOUT||Front-engine, AWD||Front-engine, AWD||Front-engine, AWD|
|ENGINE TYPE||60-deg V-6 alum block/heads||Turbocharged I-4 alum block/head||60-deg V-6 alum block/heads|
|VALVETRAIN||DOHC, 4 valves/cyl||DOHC, 4 valves/cyl||DOHC, 4 valves/cyl|
|DISPLACEMENT||222.7 cu in/3,649 cc||151.8 cu in/2,488 cc||210.9 cu in/3,456 cc|
|POWER (SAE NET)||310 hp @ 6,600 rpm*||227 hp @ 5,000 rpm**||295 hp @ 6,600 rpm|
|TORQUE (SAE NET)||271 lb-ft @ 5,000 rpm*||310 lb-ft @ 2,000 rpm||263 lb-ft @ 4,700 rpm|
|REDLINE||7,200 rpm||6,300 rpm||6,750 rpm|
|WEIGHT TO POWER||13.9 lb/hp||19.0 lb/hp||15.4 lb/hp|
|TRANSMISSION||6-speed automatic||6-speed automatic||8-speed automatic|
|SUSPENSION, FRONT; REAR||Struts, coil springs, anti-roll bar; multilink, coil springs, anti-roll bar||Struts, coil springs, anti-roll bar; multilink, coil springs, anti-roll bar||Struts, coil springs, anti-roll bar; multilink, coil springs, anti-roll bar|
|BRAKES, F; R||12.6-in vented disc; 12.4-in vented disc, ABS||12.6-in vented disc; 12.8-in disc, ABS||12.9-in vented disc; 12.2-in disc, ABS|
|WHEELS, F;R||8.0 x 20 in cast aluminum||8.5 x 20 in cast aluminum||7.5 x 19 in cast aluminum|
|TIRES, F;R||235/55R20 102H (M+S) Michelin Premier LTX||255/50R20 104V (M+S) Falken Ziex CT50 A/S||245/55R19 103T (M+S) Toyo A20 Open Country|
|WHEELBASE||112.5 in||115.3 in||109.8 in|
|TRACK, F/R||64.5/64.5 in||65.3/65.2 in||64.4/64.2 in|
|LENGTH x WIDTH x HEIGHT||193.6 x 75.4 x 66.0 in||199.4 x 77.2 x 67.6 in||192.5 x 75.8 x 68.1 in|
|GROUND CLEARANCE||7.8 in||8.8 in||8.0 in|
|APPRCH/DEPART ANGLE||14.8/22.5 deg||17.5/18.0 deg||18.0/23.1 deg|
|TURNING CIRCLE||38.7 ft||38.8 ft||38.7 ft|
|CURB WEIGHT||4,305 lb||4,317 lb||4,551 lb|
|WEIGHT DIST, F/R||57/43%||55/45%||55/45%|
|TOWING CAPACITY||4,000 lb||3,500 lb||5,000 lb|
|HEADROOM, F/M/R||40.0/39.6/— in||39.3/38.5/35.4 in||39.8/37.8/35.9 in|
|LEGROOM, F/M/R||41.0/39.7/— in||41.0/39.4/29.7 in||44.2/38.4/27.7 in|
|SHOULDER ROOM, F/M/R||59.4/58.7/— in||57.9/58.1/53.1 in||59.3/59.6/55.0 in|
|CARGO VOL BEH F/M/R||79.0/41.7/— cu ft||71.2/38.2/14.4 cu ft||13.8/42.3/83.2 cu ft|
|ACCELERATION TO MPH|
|0-30||2.4 sec||2.3 sec||2.5 sec|
|PASSING, 45-65 MPH||3.7||4.2||3.7|
|QUARTER MILE||15.3 sec @ 92.6 mph||15.7 sec @ 86.1 mph||15.5 sec @ 92.6 mph|
|BRAKING, 60-0 MPH||126 ft||123 ft||126 ft|
|LATERAL ACCELERATION||0.82 g (avg)||0.82 g (avg)||0.77 g (avg)|
|MT FIGURE EIGHT||26.9 sec @ 0.67 g (avg)||26.7 sec @ 0.65 g (avg)||27.6 sec @ 0.62 g (avg)|
|TOP-GEAR REVS @ 60 MPH||1,650 rpm||2,000 rpm||1,400 rpm|
|BASE PRICE||$44,175||$44,915||$40,000 (est)|
|PRICE AS TESTED||$47,465||$45,215||$42,000 (est)|
|AIRBAGS||Dual front, front side, front center, f/r curtain||Dual front, front side, f/r curtain||Dual front, front side, f/r curtain, front-pass thigh, driver knee|
|BASIC WARRANTY||3 yrs/36,000 miles||3 yrs/36,000 miles||3 yrs/36,000 miles|
|POWERTRAIN WARRANTY||5 yrs/60,000 miles||5 yrs/60,000 miles||5 yrs/60,000 miles|
|ROADSIDE ASSISTANCE||5 yrs/100,000||3 yrs/36,000 miles||2 yrs/25,000 miles|
|FUEL CAPACITY||22.0 gal||19.5 gal||19.2 gal|
|EPA CITY/HWY/COMB ECON||18/25/20 mpg||21/27/23 mpg||20/26/22 mpg|
|ENERGY CONS, CITY/HWY||187/135 kW-hrs/100 miles||160/125 kW-hrs/100 miles||169/130 kW-hrs/100 miles|
|CO2 EMISSIONS, COMB||0.94 lb/mile||0.83 lb/mile||0.87 lb/mile|
|REAL MPG, CITY/HWY/COMB||16.9/24.4/19.6 mpg||18.7/25.8/21.3 mpg||15.8/23.9/18.6 mpg|
|RECOMMENDED FUEL||Unleaded regular||Unleaded regular||Unleaded regular|
|* SAE Certified|
|** 250 hp with 93 octane fuel|